INDEPENDENCE -- Weekly visits to the playground at Riverview Park was a sort of ritual a few years ago for Sarah Ramirez of Independence and her son, Sam.
Because Sam suffers from spina bifida, a birth defect that has left him nearly paralyzed from the waist down, the playground was one of the few outlets where he could interact with peers in a recreational environment -- with a little help from his mom.
But trips to the park are fewer and far between these days. The 8-year-old's mobility has decreased as he's grown and Sarah Ramirez can't lift him onto most equipment by herself because of ruptured discs in her back.
Sam can't use much of the playground equipment at Monmouth Elementary School, where he's a student. Or roll his wheelchair over the uneven facility surface to reach them.
"There's not a lot for him to do during playtime," she said. "He can (roll) around on the blacktop and that's about it .... he loves to play with peers but he can't get around."
Ramirez said she's had little luck finding in the Willamette Valley or other parts of northwest Oregon a completely handicap accessible or "universal" playground, which drove her to research and push for a local facility.
Her mission has picked up steam in recent months. The city of Independence agreed to locate a 5,400-square-foot playground in the northeast corner of Riverview Park. And officials and some local residents led by Ramirez have started a fundraising effort to pay for the estimated $250,000 project, which will include swings, bridges, a drum circle and other items.
About 75 percent of the cost will be covered with grants, and the balance, with donations, said Shawn Irvine, Independence Community Development Technician.
Officials applied for a $50,000 grant from the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department last week, while a project citizen committee began taking donations for engraved play surface tiles during Western Days.
Pending available funds, work on the playground would start by next summer.
"It would fill an important need in our community and the region," Irvine said, adding that the facility would serve kids with and without disabilities.
The federal Americans with Disability Act (ADA) requires playgrounds to be accessible to children or adults with special needs.
Irvine said playgrounds at most Independence parks can be reached by wheelchair. But there are no laws that say the actual equipment must accommodate those with limitations, he added.
Ramirez said she started hunting for playgrounds geared toward individuals with varying levels of disabilities around Oregon two years ago.
Only a few such facilities exist, like the Rotary Centennial Playground in Bend and Rose Garden Children's Playground in Portland, Ramirez said, adding there was almost nothing in the mid-Willamette Valley.
So she started pursuing the creation of a playground in Independence. She sought input from physical therapists and physicians about what equipment would most benefit children. And during Sam's eight-hour appointments at Shriners Hospital in Portland, she interviewed parents about what they would want in a playground.
Ramirez then contacted Sitelines, a Washington-based company that designs universal playgrounds. The company did a series of layouts for free.
She approached Independence officials during the spring about building a playground in one of the smaller parks.
And "they said they were trying to make Riverview Park a destination and what I thought about it going there," she said. "We couldn't have asked for a better place."
The envisioned playground will incorporate swings with back support, slides that can be reached via easy-to-climb steps, balance beams and other features. A flat, vulcanized rubber surface will allow for easy wheelchair access.
"What we want is a safe place for them that's conducive to their abilities," she said, "and that they can access and be with their peers.
"We want to make this an all-inclusive playground."
For more information on the Riverview Park Community Playground, contact Sarah Ramirez at 503-910-7085 or visit www.playinindependence.com.